Missouri Rep. Scott Fitzpatrick believes the issue is simple: If you’re not in the country legally, you shouldn’t get benefits paid for by taxpayers.
“I can’t rationalize in my head why we would reward somebody who is breaking the law,” said Fitzpatrick, a Shell Knob Republican.
That philosophy led Fitzpatrick to sponsor legislation that will be among the most hotly debated topics when lawmakers return to the Capitol later this month for the annual veto session — a ban on the state-funded A+ Scholarship being awarded to undocumented immigrants.
“We’re not saying these students are banned from attending college,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re just saying we aren’t going to make the taxpayers of Missouri pay for it. There’s a difference between punishing someone and failing to reward someone.”
The bill passed, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon, who argued it was a “harsh measure imposed unfairly on children who have done nothing wrong.”
That has set up a showdown between the Democratic governor and the Republican-dominated General Assembly, with lawmakers intent on overriding the veto and implementing the legislation on Sept. 16.
“We’re confident the votes are there for an override,” said House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot, a Lee’s Summit Republican, who listed the bill among the GOP’s priorities going into the veto session.
At issue are students who qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. It was created by President Barack Obama in 2012 to stop the deportation of children brought to the country illegally by their parents.
Because these students were brought to the U.S. as young children and are undocumented through no fault of their own, DACA allows them to legally live, work and study in the U.S. It does not, however, create a path to citizenship.
“They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Obama said in announcing the new policy.
In response to the federal government’s action, the Missouri Department of Higher Education established a rule last year stating that because the students were now lawfully present in the U.S., they were eligible for the A+ Scholarship.
As long as the students have attended a Missouri high school for three years and graduated with a 2.5 GPA, a 95 percent attendance record and 50 hours of tutoring or mentoring, they qualify for the state-funded scholarship.
These students meet all requirements of the scholarship program, Nixon said in a letter to lawmakers explaining his veto, “while overcoming daunting obstacles such as learning English, living in fear of deportation, and facing the constant stigma of being an alien.”
Nixon wrote: “Rather than discouraging the continuing education of these students, the state has an interest in encouraging their successful participation in higher education so that htey have an opportunity to pursue productive careers and make positive contributions to the state of Missouri.”
Vanessa Crawford Aragón, the executive director of Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, said these students have done “everything we’ve asked them to do.”
“They are going to continue to live and work in Missouri,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense to hinder them from getting a college education.”
Cierpiot said that the problem is that the A+ Scholarship program is underfunded.
“It’d be different if the program had all the money it needed, but it does not,” he said. “So there are citizens who can’t get these scholarships. We shouldn’t be adding students to the program at this time.”
Fitzpatrick also said that such students shouldn’t get access to scholarships that aren’t available to home-schooled students and those who attend private schools.
In the Senate, Jason Holsman of Kansas City , a Kansas City Democrat, voted with Republicans for the legislation. He said he did so because “with the resources falling short of fully funding the scholarship for citizens, it didn’t make sound policy to extend a scarce public benefit to undocumented citizens.”
Holsman said the answer is is for the federal government to “recognize these kids as future contributing Americans and pass immigration reform to provide a path to citizenship.”
Rep. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat, said students shouldn’t be punished if the issue is simply a funding shortfall.
“It does not have to be a zero-sum game,” she said, adding that lawmakers should instead work to fully fund the scholarship program.
Contributing to the debate is another measure, which Fitzpatrick added to a budget bill, that denies scholarships to DACA students and threatens to withhold state funds to schools that allow the students to pay in-state tuition rates.
The Higher Education Department sent a memo to schools this summer stating that because the language was included in the preamble of the budget bill, and not in the bill itself, it is not legally enforceable.
Despite this interpretation, most Missouri universities have decided to abide by the legislature’s wishes and sent letters informing DACA students that they will be charged higher tuition rates and lose certain scholarships.
Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates estimates that more than 1,200 individuals with DACA credentials live in the state, but not all are college students.
“Right now there are families trying to figure out if their kid is going to be able to go to school,” Aragón said. “That’s something that really gets lost when we’re talking about this.”
The A+ Scholarship legislation passed the Missouri Senate with the support of 24 Republicans and one Democrat. That was two more votes than the two-thirds majority needed for an override, although Holsman said he plans to vote to uphold Nixon’s veto.
The bill passed the House with 108 votes in favor, one shy of a two-thirds majority. However, 11 Republicans were absent.